We have been operating off the Norwegian coastline for thirty-six hours, having departed Granitnyy before dawn on Saturday morning. There are four of us. To the west we have the two newest ships in the 55th Missile Ship Brigade, both Gremyashchy-class corvettes barely out of sea trials. I fly my very small flag in Gremyashchy herself, while Provornyy, on her first trip outside Russian waters, holds station nearby. Thirty miles to the east we have Tucha and Urugan, a pair of elderly Nanuchka III missile craft that serves as my fast missile group.
We are hunting ghosts. We lost three Ropuchas last week to…nothing, just missiles out of nowhere. Naval aviation lost another two reconnaissance aircraft trying to figure out what happened. Fleet intelligence thinks it knows — four of the Norwegian Skjolds have been missing from their berths for two weeks. And they have even better news — the Norwegians have a Nansen-class frigate supporting this raider group. So it is up to my little squadron to seek and kill four stealth surface effect craft and a midget Aegis.
It is just past dawn and the surface picture is starting to populate. I have both surface groups in a tight EMCON state, while the helicopters listen and occasionally radiate from 12,000 feet. “Mostly commercial traffic, Commodore,” says Usenkov in a tired tone of voice. “Just like yesterday. Fishermen.”
“I see. But what fisherman travels at 55 knots?” I ask.
“Fast missilecraft,” breathes Usenkov. “No emissions, he’s running silent. Our contact is a skin-paint from the helicopter.”
“Then I doubt he sees us yet,” I reply. “Let’s take the group to the west, I want to be off the axis of the helicopter radar. Radars off.” We shift our weight as the corvette heels starboard.
Five minutes pass. The helicopter reports radar activity. “Surface search radar. Airborne. Type NH90.”
The NH90 is the helicopter operated by the Nansen frigate. So the Nansen may be far to the south. There is a surface contact near the helicopter, emissions-silent, cruising at an innocuous 6 knots. Is it a fisherman that the NATO helicopter was just checking out? Or is it the Nansen itself?
We wait a few more minutes while the helicopter carefully makes its way to the west. Our helicopter detects more surface contacts popping out of the coastal radar shadows. Usenkov points out that three of them have accelerated past 26 knots and are headed north to open water.
“Well?” I look at my very young executive officer.
“They saw the Helix,” he replies. “Then they vectored their own helicopter in. I think there is a good chance they have us — you know the new NATO airborne radars.”
“And the fast-movers are their strike force, moving in on us radar-silent,” I finish. “I agree. Classify SKUNK 6 as hostile, NATO Skjold-class fast missile craft, and let’s see how this develops.”
Usenkov nods, looking pale, and gives the order to the combat systems officer. And then all hell breaks loose.
The Soviet Navy, and then to a lesser extent the Russian Navy, has always had a fascination with combat systems automation. There has never been a shortage of clever computers installed on the bridges of Russian warships to “help” human commanders respond more wisely and more quickly. Unfortunately, these marvelous devices have never quite functioned in the way they were designed. And so it was that when young Lieutenant Usenkov ordered that the surface contact known to the computers as “SKUNK 6” be marked as hostile for purposes of clarifying the plot, the eager computers went a step further. Well, several steps further.
First, the computers decide that if SKUNK 6 was hostile, then all of the other contacts on the same side as SKUNK 6 must logically also be hostile. And while they don’t know for sure who exactly that is, it can take a pretty good guess. We watch, open-mouthed, as five contacts go from neutral to hostile on the flag plot.
Next, the computers decide that since we are on an anti-surface mission, these contacts are hostile, and they are now within range of our primary antiship batteries, we will attack these contacts. In a millisecond the combat systems allocate our Oniks missiles to targets, download radar data into the missile computers, and begin firing salvoes.
Finally, the computers aboard my flagship reach out via secure tactical datalink to the Nanuchka group, inform them of the latest gossip, and direct them to allocate and fire as well. So, thirty miles away, two very astonished fast missile boat crews watch as their missile canisters shift into firing position and begin launching SS-N-9 missiles.
“Usenkov,” I inquire conversationally, “what did you do?”
Lieutenant Usenkov opens and closes his mouth like an enormous fish in uniform. But there is really nothing to do but watch.
The P-800 missiles are fast and unforgiving.
And even the older SS-N-9 Sirens make quick work of the NATO missile craft, stealthy hulls or no.
We watch in amazed silence as two, then three, then four contacts wink out of existence on the plot. The Helix overhead confirms the destruction of the Norwegians. Finally, the only contacts left are the salvo of P-800s allocated to the Nansen, far to the south. We watch impatiently as the missile symbols crawl over the miles.
Then, curiously, one of the missile symbols just disappears. And then another. I frown.
Usenkov has an answer. “It is the Aegis system aboard the Nansen. It’s shooting them down.”
Of course. The combat systems computers did not account for this. As fast as the P-800 missiles are, there is no chance that four of them will penetrate an Aegis shield. I start to curse, then stop. There is something else that is wrong.
“Lieutenant,” I say slowly, not quite grasping what is going on. “Why are the missiles just disappearing?”
“It is the Aegis,” he responds with some impatience. “They are shooting them down.”
“But with what?”
We stare at each other. There are no hostile missiles on the plot at all. Even at this distance, we should have picked up vampires with the air surveillance radar. And then the terrible truth dawns. We are in a tight EMCON state. We are relying on the Helix for early warning.
And the Ka-27 Helix does not carry an air search radar.
My deputy responds first. “Radars active!” he shouts, lunging for the console. Right at that moment a lookout screams something unintelligible.
Ghosts. Missiles out of nowhere. There is no time to do anything. The automated systems, belatedly brought on line, jump to life. A surface-to-air missile leaps into the air. The close-in guns begin chattering. Decoy flares launch.
In the end, we are lucky. A distant explosion tells me that our sister ship is not.
“We’re hit,” Provornyy tells us.
“We have most systems still online, but we’re still fighting the flooding.”
“I’ll let you know. I have to go.”
Usenkov looks wild-eyed. “Dead man’s strike. Those came from the missile craft. They must have fired them before we killed them.” And he is right. The plot shows that the missiles were coming in from several directions, each along the axis of one of the Skjolds. The combat system was too late, it seems.
“We were careless.” I look at the plot. We are in open water, with a Nansen loose to the southwest.
We have to move. I direct the group at best speed to the southeast, to the cover of the island. We need to get in its radar shadow before the Nansen sorts out the picture and launches on us.
“I can only make eight knots,” says Provornyy. “We have the flooding under control but the fire is still spreading. Leave us, you can’t stay here. We’ll manage.”
I may very well have to. Before I can reply, the radar operator screams about vampires. It’s the Nansen.
The SAMs launch. And then an enormous hand slaps the side of the missile corvette and pounds the deck with flame.
Usenkov is lying dead on the deck. I cannot see out of one eye. But the flag plot is still functioning. “Damage!” I snap at no one in particular.
“We’re on fire, major flooding in compartment 4. Engines are still online. We have lost the air search radar,” a chief replies.
I call the Nanuchkas. “Come west, flank speed. You are now the main effort.” The two missile boats accelerate to 35 knots and begin closing the distance.
I try to think. We are all out of antiship missiles — the combat systems unleashed one enormous pulse of firepower on all five of the NATO combatants and emptied our magazines. The right thing to do right now would be to run. But both of my corvettes are on fire and taking on water, and I don’t know how fast we’re going to be able to move. Right now we’re vulnerable and out in the open, and the Nansen is coming.
The Nansen. He doesn’t have a lot of firepower. Eight antiship rounds, and he wouldn’t have trickled them in on us. How many did we shoot down? At least three. And he may have shot at us as part of that first raid. So maybe he’s low on antiship missiles too. But he has a lot of dual-purpose SAMs and he’s undamaged and he has a helicopter. And if we try to crawl away he will come in and finish us at leisure.
An hour later, Provornyy reports that the flooding has been secured, but they’re still on fire. We are also still flooding and the aft end of the ship is blazing. The engineer tells us that we can only generate three knots. Right now we just need to stay afloat. Then we can think about trying to escape.
The good news is that there don’t seem to be any more vampire attacks. Provornyy still has an air search radar and covers both of us.
The Nanuchkas arrive about an hour later, right about when we have the flooding stopped and are focusing on the fire. We are barely making steerage. I have been studying the plot.
“We are pretty much dead in the water,” I tell the Nanuchkas. “And the Helix still has contact with the Nansen, to the southwest. He is headed in this direction, but he’s being careful. He figures that there is no rush, and he still doesn’t know for sure how many of us are out there. But eventually he’ll get his helicopter over here to clear the surface picture and then he’ll finish us off.”
“What I need you to do is to slip into the strait here and lose yourself in the radar clutter. At flank speed you may be able to slip in to intercept him when he crosses the western mouth of the strait.”
“We’re out of missiles,” Tucha‘s captain reminds me.
“I know,” I reply. “It probably wouldn’t do that much good anyway; he has an Aegis system that can swat down your whole battery.”
“So what do you propose?”
I finger the damp bandage. Everything smells of smoke. “Hide in the radar clutter, get in close, and put a dagger in his throat.”
Fifteen minutes after the Nanuchkas depart, we lose one of the Helixes. I watch wordlessly. Fewer SAMs for the frigate to turn on the Nanuchkas.
The fast missile craft thread their way through the strait at 35 knots. I wonder idly whether anyone is awake at this hour and watching, and whether they will phone their local police station.
The time creeps by. Eventually the last fires aboard are extinguished. But we are in terrible shape.
As Tucha emerges from the narrowest part of the strait, the electronic warfare station announces that we have a surface search radar. Nansen has flipped on her sensors.
My heart sinks. They have been detected. I have thrown away the two Nanuchkas as well. I close my eyes as the vampire call comes in.
“I have incoming vampires,” announces Urugan, his voice unnaturally calm. “I think they’re all targeted on me.” He’s right; it appears that Tucha is in a radar shadow and has escaped detection. Or maybe the NATO captain is concentrating his fire out of habit. He needn’t have bothered — Nanuchkas don’t have enough defensive firepower for it to matter.
And then, a miracle. The missiles drop into the sea about a half mile short of Urugan‘s position. The Nansen has miscalculated. I realize that both the Nanuchkas are outside of his surface search range, and that the NATO frigate must have been responding to the Nanuchkas’ own defensive radar activation. A bearing-only shot, range unknown.
I laugh maniacally as the NATO frigate empties salvo after salvo of his surface to air missiles into the Norwegian Sea.
There is a momentary silence, as the NATO frigate and the two Nanuchkas pause facing each other, electronic gear blazing.
Tucha: “We are attacking.”
Tucha crosses the Nansen’s radar horizon at 35 knots, springing into the flank of the larger ship.
Both the Nansen and the Nanuchkas are armed with a 76mm gun. At about six miles, the NATO frigate opens up first.
Tucha takes over twelve incoming rounds without responding, two of which are direct hits. About a minute into the steel hailstorm, she turns hard to port in a slash of white water, unmasking her own gun and returning fire.
The two warships pound on each other. Fatefully, at some point in the exchange, Tucha takes a hit in her 76mm mount and her gun falls silent. Undaunted, she whips around and charges the frigate, training a guidance radar on her bridge and unloading her short-range surface-to-air missiles at a range of ten paces. For reasons unknown, they fail to detonate.
Finally out of weapons, Tucha steers away and attempts to exit the kill zone. It is futile; the small missile craft is too badly damaged.
Tucha: “We’re burning, we’re finished. In the boats now. Urugan, finish the dolboeb.”
Urugan is a heartbreaking two minutes away when its lairmate dies. She charges the enemy frigate in cold silence. As before, at six miles, the Nansen opens up with the 76mm.
The rounds splash wide of their target. And suddenly the morning falls silent as the NATO warship’s gun mount empties.
Urugan continues to close the distance, but does not engage. She simply charges the larger ship at 34 knots, as if preparing to ram him.
Finally, at a distance of under two miles, the Nanuchka III skids to one side and unmasks her gun.
At this distance, both the damage and the accuracy of the 76mm HE projectiles are fearsome. The Nansen, her magazines empty, begins to burn.
I watch on the flag plot as Urugan unloads 75 rounds into the starboard side of the frigate, then reloads.
Eventually the Nansen, burning and taking on water, notes a pause in the fire and deduces that the Nanuchka is again reloading. He takes the opportunity to run for his life.
But Urugan is faster. And over the next five minutes, she methodically wrestles the frigate to the ground and empties everything she has left into his hull — including the 30mm close-in gatling guns. The fires eventually consume the Nansen, and she is abandoned, listing heavily to starboard.
Urugan: “He’s done. Commencing search and rescue operations for Tucha.”
1x Ka-27PL Helix A
1 x MRK Nanuchka III [Pr. 1234.1 Ovod]
16x SS-N-26 Sapless [P-800 Onyx]
12x SS-N-9 Siren [P-120 Malakhit]
10x PK-10 Flare [SO-50]
28x SA-N-21c Growler [9M96]
11x 100mm/59 A-190 Frag
1x AK-630M 30mm/65 Gatling Burst [400 rds]
352x AK-176 76mm/60 HE Burst [2 rds]
31x SA-N-4a Gecko [9M33]
100x AK-176 76mm/60 Frag Burst [2 rds]
8x AK-630 30mm/65 Gatling Burst [400 rds]
4x P 960 Skjold
1x F 310 Fridtjof Nansen
8x DUAL TRAP Chaff/Flare
32x RIM-162A ESSM
305x 76mm/62 Super Rapido HE Burst [2 rds]
2x Stingray Mod 0
Scenario/simulation: “First Contact,” Command: Modern Air and Naval Operations.